To Marlon James, an epic is “a struggle that’s both very profound and very simple at the same time.” His Dark Star Trilogy, an African fantasy series, is certainly that. It’s not just the size of the books, which are 600-plus pages apiece, that makes Dark Star arguably an epic. The simple part? It’s a search for a lost boy. As for how the series is profound—that’s not so easily summarized.
In the Dark Star Trilogy, the same story is told in each book by a different character. The first volume, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is narrated by Tracker, a nonbinary or queer figure with a magical sense of smell. The second volume, Moon Witch, Spider King, which has just been released, focuses on Sogolon, a witch whose allegiance to the search party is questionable.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Per NPR, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is what you’d get “if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”
The trilogy is a follow up to the Jamaican writer’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings about the death of Bob Marley. The novel won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. It was also a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle. James is the author of the highly praised novels The Book of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil. He teaches literature at Macalester College.
WD spoke to James about how to write an epic.
Each of your books, or the stories you’re telling, has been longer than the last. Can you speak to that progression?
As I write each novel, I have become more and more interested in the world in which my characters live. So, it’s not just that they become longer, it’s that they also take place over a longer period of time. And they involve different worlds and different environments and different realities. I’ve just become very interested in the hidden lives of my characters and the afterlives of my characters.
A Brief History of Seven Killings was supposed to only sit in one day, which was December 6, 1976. Then I started to think, but if I’m somebody hiding from the law, if I’m somebody terrified that I’m being haunted, if I’m somebody who may have committed something terrible and living with it, where am I a year from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now? And that’s how that novel happened; I just became very interested in the afterlives of characters. And once I realized that it was interesting, then I just couldn’t let it go. And I think that’s why the novels got longer and longer. Hopefully, it’s still interesting. I find it interesting. I find the consequences of actions, how we age, [how] we grow and change really fascinating, especially if we’re coming from a formative experience. I have a story today, and I’m already thinking, “But tomorrow, what did they do?”
It reminds me of something you’ve said on your podcast about how so many writers are narrative-focused, but it’s the characters that you remember.
Yeah, it’s Captain Ahab you remember or even the big whale. Stories are ultimately about characters, and I think if you start there, then you have most of your story already done. A lot of writers probably have struggles with things like plotting. In fact, you’ll come across writers who say things like, “I don’t care about plotting,” or “This is a plotless novel,” which is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But it’s something a lot of writers struggle with: What do you do with plot? And the thing about that is you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not what do you do with plot, it is what happens to your character? If you start with characters: What does your character want? How does your character get it? What stands in the way of them getting it? How do they work around that? What are the consequences of their actions? What are the consequences of those consequences? The book writes itself.
I give this really bad example in my class. Nine times out of 10 when you have a back pain, the problem isn’t in your back. So, nine times out of 10 when you have a plot problem, an imagery problem, a style problem, a concept problem, what you have is a character problem. And the more you get to the point where your characters feel like actual people, the more you have a story. Because the more real people become, the more you want to know their story. Storytelling for me is in many ways solving the mystery. And when you get to know your characters, and you get to know why they behave the way they behave, then that story almost starts to write itself.
What makes an epic an epic?
I think for me, what makes an epic an epic is a struggle that’s both very profound and very simple at the same time. People can say an epic is super long, but there are a lot of epics that are short. A lot of the great Icelandic sagas are short story length. But it’s gods fighting against monsters. And it doesn’t have to be gods and monsters. But it is a kind of conflict where you feel the stakes are incredibly high. I think also an epic has a certain lyricism to it; otherwise, it’s just a really big novel. I think there’s a lyricism and a musicality to an epic, which is why Middlemarch is a really big novel, Moby-Dick is an epic. It’s why almost every Toni Morrison novel is kind of an epic. When we’re talking about Sundiata in African mythology or we’re talking about the Iliad, it says something that a lot of these old stories were meant to be accompanied to music. So there is still that sort of musicality and the sense of high stakes and fates in the balance that makes a story an epic.
In your interview with Jeff Chang, you mentioned that you’re attracted to novels with volume. How do you suggest starting to cultivate the skill of volume control?
Well, the first thing is to control volume, you have to control voice. And I think too often, writers think the voice they need to work on the most is their own. But even a third person omniscient narrator is still at the service of their characters. And some of the best third-person narratives remember that. If you read Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover,” it’s third person but she has no problem zooming in so close that it takes on the character’s voice and pulling back where it’s almost like God speaking. So, again, it goes back to what we’re saying that nine times out of 10, the cure for your problem isn’t the thing you think is wrong. Controlling volume really means controlling point of view. And point of view is not just a matter of first person, second person, and third person, point of view is also the degree of distance between narrator and subject. Is it “the boy grabbed that cup”? Is it “Henry, grab that cup”? Is it “That bastard Henry grabbed the last cup”? The information is the same, but they’re three very different sentences. And the volume is different.
There are stories that we shout, because we want everybody in the room to hear and there are stories that we’re literally whispering into somebody’s ear. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a whisper. He’s talking to one person, and he’s really making sure nobody else hears him. As opposed to say, a novel like Middlemarch or an epic like the Odyssey where that is clearly at top volume because they want the crowd to hear.
But in any given novel, you need points where you’re shouting and points for your whispering, right?
Well, yeah, you have to have variety, I think, because nobody wants to hear somebody shout all the time. And at the same time, a constant whisper runs the risk of you locking the reader out of your own story, which people do all the time. It’s not just volume, it’s also specificity. “He picked a flower.” Well, which flower was it? “He saw a bird.” Which bird was it? I tell my students, you have to look at the reader as somebody in a sensory deprivation tank. If you don’t open up a sense, they don’t sense it. I taught a 9/11 class once, and the first thing I asked my students was, “What do you think 9/11 smelled like?” We’ve so been trained to experience something as one sense as opposed to the full sensory experience that you can get from reading a novel. When the reader says things like, “I felt like I was there,” what they’re really saying is all my senses were unlocked.
Going back to point of view, the first book in the Dark Star Trilogy was told in first person while the second book switches tense in the middle. Why these choices?
It starts in third person because Sogolon has so much of a distance between who she was back then, it’s almost like a totally different person. She does what we do sometimes: The only way we can talk about something if it’s full of trauma is to turn ourselves into a character and give ourselves distance. And the way she gives herself distance in that section is in third person. She spends most of it as a child, so that was that was almost her way of presenting that kind of story. She had to turn herself into a character.
Now that you’ve written two out of the three books of the trilogy, what have you learned craft-wise that you’ll take into the third book?
One thing I’ve learned or am reminding myself is the whole idea of who should tell what story. It’s hard to talk about three without giving spoilers because I’m kind of hiding who’s telling the third volume. But certainly the third volume, which I haven’t even started yet, but one of the things it questions is who gets to tell whose story. And I think with that, I’ve become more confident with having someone telling a story and then questioning whether that person had authority to tell it in the first place. And that can also end up being part of the actual narrative, as well. It’s not just who’s telling the story, by what right, are you telling it? Is this the only version? Maybe we should hear from somebody else, and so on.
Unlike Western storytelling, African storytelling doesn’t need the authority of the storyteller. In Western storytelling, the fact that you’re telling a story means it’s true, especially if it’s a third person. Unless you’ve been told this is an unreliable narrator, you rely on the narrator. Whereas in a lot of African folk storytelling, that’s not a given. I still want to stick with that and play with that more: Can we actually believe what we’re hearing?
So, you did a lot of research into African myths and language systems for this series, but you’re still writing from the U.S. in English. What do diasporic writers need to be sensitive to when writing about countries or continents that they have a claim to, but they didn’t grow up in?
It’s really, really universal, but just doing the research. Doing the work. Do what the crime writers do: their research. Well, the good ones. Would it be great to actually fly and spend some time in Africa? Of course. But if you’re a brand-new writer who can’t afford trips to Africa, do the work and spend more time reading than writing. And be careful what you read, because a lot of Africa has been shaped by the European gaze, which is useless. I read a lot of those early history books, honestly for comedy. I didn’t read them for research. It’s also reading how people write about Africa.
One of the reasons why a lot of male writers suck at writing about women is that they don’t read women. You have to get to the point where not only you’re not just reading Toni Morrison, you’re reading what Toni Morrison read. And doing the work of reading, a way of understanding the world and understanding people emerges. Creative writing programs can teach you a lot. But as a creative writing teacher, there are some things I can’t teach you; you have to read to learn it.
Knowing that this series will be many Western readers’ introduction to much of African mythology, did that impact how you wrote?
No, because I wasn’t trying to write it as a cultural tourist. Funny enough, one of the people who helped me with this was Ernest Hemingway because Hemingway has a way of writing about brand-new locations and never once turning into a tourist. And one of the ways in which Hemingway pulls this off is movement. There’s a lot of detail, but there’s a lot of movement. He’s not stopping at this piazza to describe the whole thing to you, but he gives you the sense of it: the sensuality of it, the noise of it, the rhythm of it, the bones of it, then he moves on.
I had to remember even if the world is new to the reader, it’s not new to the characters. So at the same time, I’m writing a fantasy novel! What’s a fantasy novel without exposition? What’s a fantasy novel without page after page of world-building? That’s half of the reason why we all do it. So there has to be a balance between world-building, introducing these strange things and letting the reader know why they’re strange and why they’re new, but also keeping the pace of the story going so that we don’t end up being bogged down by exposition when characters need to get on with the story.
It’s a tricky thing, and it’s something I learned by trial and error, and I’m still learning it, and I don’t know any writer who hasn’t, because it comes down to pacing. And good luck finding an MFA program that teaches pacing because I’ve yet to come across one. It’s such an essential skill for a writer, and it’s extremely difficult, and you only learn it by failing. But it’s how you control worlds that are new. It’s not just Middle-earth or Narnia or the worlds of my book, it’s New York, too. We can’t just assume everybody in the room knows the difference between West Village and Tribeca. But you don’t have time to turn it into a brochure. You have to hit a midway between describing this world and having the characters move through it, and the most effective way is to have the person experience the world.
What often goes wrong in world-building in fantasy novels?
I think what sometimes goes wrong with world-building is that people spend too much time on it. Build to the point of where it’s of use to the character, otherwise you fall into exposition. Particularly dealing with fantasy, a lot of people think they haven’t been building their world enough, but more often than not, they’ve been building it too much. That what you need is a few broad, but bold strokes, as opposed to 15 pages of exposition and trusting that sometimes it’s the character’s experience of the world that we want, not necessarily always a description of the world.
To me, John Cheever is the master of anti-setting. Cheever was not going to describe the living room to you. He’s going to say it’s a living room with a coffee table with a tray where you know you would never find a loose button or a paper clip. So you know this is one uptight family.
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So you’re talking about showing, not telling, right?
Yes and no. But then Toni Morrison and Alice Munro are both expert tellers. Song of Solomon and Sula are straight up telling, but I trust the authority of the teller. And I think that comes back to voice. Just because you’re telling doesn’t mean you’re not going to give me detail.
We all say show, don’t tell and forget that most of the crucial early texts or classics of literature are all telling. It’s show and tell. Sometimes I’m more interested in the narrator’s attitude to the setting than the setting. It’s not one against the other, it’s knowing when to use one and when to use the other. Because there’s lots of telling in my book.
Several reviews of Black Leopard, Red Wolf claimed you were reinventing fantasy. But you have so many global, historic influences. Are you truly reinventing the genre or just pulling from works outside of the norm?
Too often we still have this idea that fantasy is basically the medieval history with fairies in it. Why am I always seeing a carriage? Why is there always a plague? Why is everybody wearing a sack as a dress? Why is it always the Middle Ages with witches? There is nothing wrong with that—I quite like the Middle Ages. I’d have a huge book about the Middle Ages. But we still have this very narrow idea of what fantasy is, which is really ironic because reading fantasy is usually the first time we ever sense that there’s more than one world.
What’s your advice for aspiring fantasy novelists?
One thing I would say is read the greats, but read beyond the greats. TIME magazine just did a list of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, and I’m very grateful that I’m on it, but I was dismayed that Gormenghast was not. We have this terrible way of looking at fantasy as child’s play. If you don’t want to let go of make-believe but read something that is more complicated and more richly rewarding, the Gormenghast trilogy is an obvious thing. I used to teach a policy in class, usually about economy and using fewer words, and we’d read this chapter from Gormenghast that totally validated everything I spent the whole week teaching. Let’s talk about why it’s still so great. It’s a fantastic novel.
So read beyond the Lord of the Rings and The [Chronicles of] Narnia series. Read The Winged Histories, Friday Black, A Hero Born. You can learn a lot about writing fantasy from the spending a few weeks in some anime. This goes back to what I was saying about Morrison: Don’t just read Tolkien; read what Tolkien read. Don’t just read your fantasy heroes; read who they read, and who your heroes’ heroes read. And before you know it, you’re back at the original epics, back at the Icelandic sagas. You’re back in the West African and the South African epics; you’re back at the Kalevala; you’re back at Beowulf.